| The Detroit News
With the new league year a little more than a week away, the Detroit Lions have a number of roster decisions to make in the coming days. The team has already begun getting their books in order, reportedly informing veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant he’ll be released.
That move will clear $6.2 million in cap space. The franchise created additional space, potentially more than $5 million, with a simple restructure of linebacker Jamie Collins’ contract. But with the cap dropping by as much as $18 million this season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more moves could be necessary.
Here’s a quick look at what the Lions could be considering this week:
► Cornerback Justin Coleman
Coleman was part of Detroit’s aggressive free-agency haul in 2019, which included defensive end Trey Flowers and tight end Jesse James. Although he had cut his teeth with the New England Patriots, Coleman established himself as one of the league’s best young nickelbacks during a two-year stint in Seattle prior to accepting Detroit’s four-year, $36 million offer.
In his first season with the Lions, Coleman played a team-high 963 defensive snaps and showed a knack for making plays on the ball, recording a career-best 13 pass breakups and forcing three fumbles. But outside of those plays, he struggled in coverage. He was targeted 112 times — second only to Tennessee’s Logan Ryan — allowing 71 receptions for 869 yards and eight scores.
Last season, those struggles were even worse. Appearing in just 11 games because of a hamstring injury, Coleman allowed a staggering 84.4 percent of the 45 throws in his direction to be completed, including four touchdowns. Missed tackles, which were an issue in Seattle, also continued to be problematic in Detroit. Over the two seasons with the Lions, he whiffed on his assignment 17 times.
Coleman’s release would clear nearly $5 million in cap space.
► Defensive tackle Nick Williams
The Lions overhauled the interior of their defensive line last offseason, moving quickly to sign Williams to a two-year, $10 million deal after his breakout season with the Bears.
A former seventh-round pick who bounced around the league for several years, Williams made the most of increased playing time in 2019, recording 6.0 sacks. Primarily viewed as a run-stuffer through the early stages of his career, the Lions felt he’d be a good fit for their gap-control defensive front.
Ultimately, Williams wasn’t able to port over his production to Detroit. Battling through a shoulder issue much of the season, he appeared in 14 games, playing over 500 defensive snaps for the second consecutive season. Despite the heavy workload, he finished with 23 tackles, nearly half his total from a year earlier, to go along with a single sack.
With the way the contract was structured, the Lions would only carry a $1 million dead cap hit for Williams in 2020, while his release clears $4.7 million off the books.
► Defensive tackle Danny Shelton
Shelton was one of several former Patriots the Lions brought aboard in recent years to help streamline the implementation of former coach Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme. The former first-round pick was supposed to fill the nose tackle, replacing Damon “Snacks” Harrison.
Like most of the players the Lions brought in from New England, Shelton didn’t live up to his billing. In 12 starts, he recorded 37 tackles, but just two behind the line of scrimmage, while whiffing on six. By midseason, with the team’s run defense struggling, the Lions shifted Shelton to a new role in an effort to get rookie John Penisini more playing time.
By releasing Shelton, the Lions would gain back $4 million in cap space for the 2021 season.
► Tight end Jesse James
It’s difficult to argue James wasn’t the biggest free-agency bust of former general manager Bob Quinn’s tenure with the franchise. Failing to sufficiently replace Eric Ebron after the former first-round pick was unceremoniously dumped ahead of the 2018 season, Quinn overcorrected the next offseason, signing James to a four-year, $22.6 million contract, a month before drafting Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson with the No. 8 pick of that year’s draft.
The addition of Hockenson significantly impacted James’ projected role in the offseason and he finished his first season in Detroit with just 16 catches for 142 yards. He also failed to find the end zone for the first time in his career. Heading into the 2020 season, there was a renewed commitment to better utilize the tight ends, but Hockenson proved to be the sole beneficiary, earning Pro Bowl honors after catching 67 passes and six scores. James, meanwhile, managed to produce even less than the year before, hauling in 14 passes in 16 games, although he managed to score a pair of touchdowns.
James had no guarantees remaining on his contract, but the Lions are still responsible for $4.3 million in dead cap space for the remaining prorated portion of his $7.1 million signing bonus. His release would save the Lions just $2.1 million in cap space this season, while knocking $7.2 million off the books in 2022.
► Linebacker Christian Jones
Jones has been a reliable fixture on Detroit’s defense the past three seasons, appearing in 45 games and playing more than 1,700 snaps. During that stretch he racked up 177 tackles, but with only a handful of big plays. Of those 177 stops, only seven came behind the line of scrimmage, and despite seeing plenty of work as an edge rusher, he’s tallied just 3.0 sacks, including none in 2020. Jones has also offered very little in the turnover department, failing to record an interception, to go with a single forced fumble and fumble recovery.
With Jarrad Davis, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Reggie Ragland all scheduled to be free agents, the Lions are going to do some serious work to their linebacking corps this offseason. Some analysts believe the team could target one of the top two in the upcoming draft class, Penn State’s Micah Parsons or Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but only if they are able to trade down out of the No. 7 spot where they’re currently slated to select.
Jones had $2.2 million in dead money remaining on his deal, but his release would free up $2.6 million in space in 2021.
► Offensive lineman Joe Dahl
Injuries have derailed the momentum Dahl had been building in his career. A fifth-round pick for the Lions in 2016, he earned a starting job, and contract extension heading into the 2019 season. He proved to be a reliable option at left guard, but a back injury at the end of that season landed him on injured reserve. He reclaimed the starting spot to begin last season, but lost it after suffering a groin injury in the season opener. That, along with the recurrence of back issues later in the year, kept Dahl in a reserve role down the stretch.
Moving on would save the Lions $2.9 million against the cap this season with only $250,000 in dead money.
► Quarterback Chase Daniel
A Sunday evening report by ESPN’s Adam Schefter noted the Lions are trying to trade Daniel. If general manager Brad Holmes can pull that off, even if it nets a conditional seventh-round draft pick in return, it would be a coup because it would clear $3.8 million in cap space.
Looking for greater stability behind Matthew Stafford, the Lions signed Daniel to a three-year, $13 million contract last offseason. That deal included a $2.25 million signing bonus and $5 million in total guarantees. Included in those guarantees is $1.5 million of his base salary this season, so Detroit would save just $2.3 million if they release him.
► Defensive end Trey Flowers
Entering the third season of the massive five-year, $90 million contract he signed in 2019, Flowers is unlikely to be going anywhere because it would cost nearly $7 million more against the cap to cut him compared to keeping him.
Trading Flowers would generate some savings, approximately $3 million, but it’s poor timing if the Lions are hoping to get value.
A third option would be restructuring his contract, similar to what the team did with Collins. Given Flowers is 27 years old and a schematic and cultural fit, the Lions could shift his money around and clear up some cap space in the process.
Able to convert upwards of $13 million of Flowers’ 2021 base salary into a bonus, the Lions could clear more than $8 million with a restructure.
► Wide receiver Kenny Golladay
We’ve been covering this issue for weeks, but the Lions have until Tuesday afternoon to decide whether to apply the franchise tag to Golladay. The one-year contract, worth a shade more than $16 million, would give the team time to either shop him on the trade market or continue to negotiate a long-term deal.